When the BlackBerry appeared, people said the best thing about it was that you could take the office with you wherever you went -- and the worst thing about it was that you had to take the office with you wherever you went.
Now Volkswagen AG, giving in to union demands in Germany to protect workers from burnout, has agreed to stop routing emails to employees' BlackBerries 30 minutes after their shifts end, and not to turn them back on until 30 minutes before the next day's shift begins. Their handhelds will still be usable as cellphones.
According to the German newspaper Wolfsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, the policy will affect 1,154 employees covered under a collective bargaining agreement. It's not a large group -- VW says it has more than 190,000 employees in Germany -- but it's a start.
"The new possibilities of communications also present dangers," said Heinz-Joachim Thust of the Volkswagen workers council, in a comment to the paper translated by ABC News. Bosses routinely expect employees to be reachable at off hours, Thust said, and burnout has been a major issue in Germany, especially after the September resignation of Ralf Rangnick, a well-known soccer coach who said he was exhausted by his work.
VW, says the BBC, is following a trend in Europe. The makers of Persil washing powder in the U.K. declared an email "amnesty" for their workers between Christmas and New Year's. Atos, a French technology giant, has announced it will ban internal email starting in 2014 so that workers have more time for other things.
The blurring of the lines between work and time off has been an ongoing issue since home computers and laptops spread in the 1980s and '90s. It grew as wireless devices made it possible for people to be in touch almost anywhere.
Scholars noted that most of the messages received on handhelds were low-priority -- but one never knew when a high-priority message would appear, so BlackBerrys quickly became "CrackBerrys."
"It's a very tough tightrope to balance oneself on," said Jonathan Spira, CEO of Basex, a technology consulting firm, in an interview with ABC News back in 2006. "Everything could be the next important emergency that needs to be taken care of."
The VW email stoppage does not affect managers or non-union employees, and the union said such policies may not be practical for other companies, particularly small businesses. But when those 1,154 workers are off-duty, they'll be more off-duty than they were.